It’s in the air.
It’s in the news.
Our struggling economy. Our struggling democracy. The income gap. Technology and artificial intelligence. At first glance, these things might not seem connected, but upon closer inspection, I find they’re all part of one impulse, and together they create the web of humanity—and our future.
Many would have you believe we’re near the end of civilization as we know it. Their case is quite compelling. Even though our economy is showing signs of recovery, most employment improvements are in low-wage jobs—the very jobs our technology seeks to replace. We might be at a 5.8% national unemployment rate as of October of 2014, yet according to Paul Bucheit in his recent article for Common Dreams, “Nine out of ten of the fastest-growing occupations are considered low-wage, generally not requiring a college degree, including food service, health care, housekeeping, and retail sales.”
Not coincidentally, the job gains that are currently making our employment numbers look good, even though they’re low paying, were found on another list recently—the ones most likely to be replaced with robots in the next twenty years.
The coming “Robot Apocalypse” is such a big deal right now that Standford University has announced a “…century-long study of the effects of artificial intelligence on society, including on the economy, war and crime.”
There are two sides to every coin. One side would suggest that a world of extreme and growing wealth, paired with the technology to free up humans from low-wage jobs, will usher in the long awaited period of “Heaven on Earth.” Others suggest that since those with the wealth don’t want to share, the projected 50% unemployment rate will lead to extreme poverty, uprisings and the deterioration of humanity.
What now lies before us is a choice, which side of the coin do we wish to nourish? The future where technology finally lives up to its promise, or the future where most of humanity lives in dire straights and the elite have to take to the skies, as they do in the movie Elysium? It is a serious choice, and one from which we can't hide.
Here’s the catch, we have to make this choice together. Yet it seems that we're polarized as a people. How in the world can we move forward?
There are many ills in society, but in my observation they all boil down to one—xenophobia.
It’s our fear of others that drives us to let the poor suffer, because they didn’t work as hard as we did. It’s our fear of others that encourages the wealthy to horde their gifts, because no one else deserves them. It’s our fear of others that encourages war, or the withholding of life saving technologies from those who need them, simply because they’re uninsured. It's our fear of others that creates a national budget where 60% of resources are dedicated to the military industrial complex, and a mere 2% is invested in science and technology.
The truth is, until we can look one another in the eyes and see nothing but the dignity of our humanity, the future can and does look dire. For unless we can find compassion and a desire for all of us to thrive on this planet, the replacement of humans with robots in the economy can and will lead to extreme poverty. That is a bleak world for most.
Yet there are things you can do as an individual to choose to thrive not just survive, the Robot Apocalypse, turning the event into the next great leap forward for humanity.
1. Learn to code. I’ve said this many times before and I’ll say it again: LEARN TO CODE. This is the language of machines, technology and power. Being a mere user makes you vulnerable. At a minimum, schools should be teaching all 7/8th graders basic coding skills and high schoolers should be required to pass a programming class for graduation.
2. Invest in your creativity. Humans are inventors. Yes, a truly learning machine will be able to create, but we’re unique in the way we see pictures in our minds. It's been said the Nikola Tesla could see his inventions in his imagination and even test them, making sure they worked, before committing to build them in the material world. We are storytellers, dancers, innovators, entertainers...Robots can of course assist us, but we’re the ones who see the world in bigger pictures, stories and humor. I’m not sure Watson could ever be as funny as George Carlin.
3. Invest in your judgment, aka your thinking skills. Our minds are not merely if-then-else statements, but more like recursive loops calling upon themselves as the states around us change. In other words, we’re not nodes on the network, we are the network. Humans can make decisions by filling in the blanks. No one has to program us, and we can change our minds given new circumstances and situations. The human learning system is truly complex and dynamic. Nourish this by stretching beyond your comfort zone. Study a new language, or an entire field, to keep things fresh. Shake up your life on a regular basis to expand your ability to process information.
4. Read “The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible,” by Charles Eisenstein. Sure, you could read books on the singularity, AI and technology by leading experts, but as long as you still think the future is bleak, grim and full of starving, jobless people, that's exactly what we'll get. We need to open our own hearts and minds to a new possibility, a new story of how humans work, love and live on the Earth. Charles’ book is a fantastic place to start. Better yet, taking the time to read this book is also an investment in your creativity and judgment, making you more competitive in the robot workplace.
5. Get to know yourself. What do you hate? Whom do you mistrust? What parts of humanity are beneath you? What belief systems do you mock? What do you call evil? We often spend time thinking about what we like and saying that defines us, but in reality it’s the things that make us want to run away that really make the difference. The things we disdain color our ability to co-create. They block us from our potential. Robots and artificial intelligences won’t have this issue. Unless we give them personalities, theirs will be a clean logic. Nothing is loved and nothing is hated. Hate is what makes us act out, hurt and horde. If we want to thrive we’ll need to clean up our emotional state, so that we can join with technology to shape a cleaner, more beautiful world, rather than be dominated by it—and abused in entirely new ways.
The goal here is to become resilient to a changing marketplace that no one entirely understands at this point. But we’ve been here before. In the mid 1800’s no one could truly understand what the invention of the factory would do to shape our world. Entirely new skills and economies were created. It’s about to happen again. Rather than fall into ruin, we can be prepared to take part in the story, in whatever way possible, even if the plot line isn’t yet clear. What is clear is that similar to Charles Dickens’ time, the chance for many to suffer during this change is high. Unlike Charles Dickens’ time, we have the ability to join together and communicate our goals and dreams as one. Let’s use our technology to inspire one another to evolve past our fear and hate, and be worthy of the world we’re building.